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My LES – Leslie P. Pena

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This weekly feature spotlights a wide variety of people who live and work on the Lower East Side. If you know someone you would like to suggest be featured in “My LES,” please email us here.

What do you do?

I am a community and legislative liaison for Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, on the LES between 14th Street and Delancey. I get to interact with people who live in our community on a daily basis, assisting constituents in resolving housing problems and accessing government services. I represent our office at Community Board 3 meetings and attend many events in the neighborhood. I also help organize community based projects, events, and initiatives. We’ve already had a free dental van and flu shots events, and stay tuned for our second annual health fair!

The legislative aspect of my job allows me to work on issues related to immigration, gun safety, social welfare, language access, education, and public housing, which often affect our constituents.

Favorite block in the hood?

There are so many great blocks in this neighborhood. I love to see the diversity and mix of cultures; it really fascinates me! However, my favorite would have to be East 12th St and Avenue B where several community gardens come together: Campos, El Sol Brillante and Vamos a Sembrar. I think the huge weeping willow tree there is absolutely beautiful!

A few months ago, we were worried about the possibility of community gardens losing their protection when the NY State Attorney General’s 2002 Community Garden Agreement was set to expire. We worked hard with other offices and advocacy groups on this issue. Luckily the City Parks and Department’s Rules for Community Gardens will continue to grant them real protections. Community gardens are such a great resource, especially in a city where green space is very scarce. They really do make a difference! They are such a nice escape from the noise of the city and perfect to have a relaxing moment to unwind after a busy day.

I also love to go to Tompkins Square Park when it’s not too cold!

Favorite date spot in the hood?

There are so many hidden gems in this neighborhood. I often venture into restaurants or bars that look tiny from the outside but are very cozy on the inside.

My grandmother’s family is from Byblos, so I grew up with Lebanese food and I am always on the lookout for Lebanese places I haven’t tried. I compare them with my grandmother’s food so the bar is high. One of my co-workers recommended Balade, a Lebanese restaurant near our office. I went there on a date since I was coming from the AMC movie theater on Third Avenue, which I also really enjoy because it has less of a commercial feel than some Manhattan theaters. Anyway, Balade was extremely romantic, with chandeliers, beautiful brick walls with patterns, silk cushions, wooden ceilings and overall great ambiance! I definitely recommend it and will definitely go back!

I also think Taureau on East 7th Street is fabulous! Their fondue selection is delicious and you can bring your own wine which helps make it really affordable.

Favorite coffee in the hood?

When it comes to coffee for me the stronger the better!

It’s hard to find places that have good French press coffee so I was lucky to find Ost Café on E 12th and Ave A! I really like B Cup too. I usually prefer cold coffee and they have a wide variety of iced and frozen coffees. Think Coffee on 4th Avenue has an excellent macchiato; it’s like a creamy espresso shot! I have such a sweet tooth so I also really like their Spanish latte which is made with condensed milk. I think it is admirable that their proceeds go to Grand Street Settlement, which does great work in our community.

Favorite slice in the hood?

We actually had a “pizza-off” at our office to compare all the slices on the LES, but my personal favorite by far is Artichoke pizza! I had heard of it for the longest time and it is right near our office so my first week at this job I took advantage of it and we all ordered some for lunch. I’ve been a fan ever since. It is hard to resist such a great combination!

Where do you take your visitors when they’re here?

I am originally from Mexico so, as you can imagine I am very picky about Mexican food. I had been very disappointed to not find any good authentic restaurants in NYC but since I started working in the LES I’ve had the best Mexican food of New York! My top favorite restaurants are Hecho en Dumbo and Sabor a Mexico. Before, I would often go and explore other boroughs looking for the Mexican neighborhoods and still the food that I found there was not as good. I can’t help but brag to my friends of the great Mexican food I have around me and often convince them to join me for dinner here. We are actually planning a Mexican food crawl on the LES soon!

Favorite dive/locals bar in the hood?

I recently celebrated my sister’s birthday at Death and Co. and loved the 1920s feel to it! Their jalapeno infused tequila drinks are delicious! I love their goat cheese profiteroles with spice walnuts, red pepper and Mexican honey, and the Prosciutto with cheese and truffle oil!

For more of a dive bar feeling it’s the Crocodile Lounge. We love going there for after- work happy hour and they have a great deal: free pizza with every drink!

What sort of changes have you seen in the neighborhood in the last few years?

Our community continues to be under pressure from development and gentrification but it’s still not like any other neighborhood and hard to categorize. It continues to grow and change, while maintaining a mix of residents, artists, and professionals, with all types of backgrounds. It definitely never gets boring!

Favorite LES memory?

All of my LES memories are of great times so it’s hard to pick one. I have had great girls’ night out with my friends exploring different places by Allen and Houston where one of my best friends lives.

I definitely still remember this summer when we had our mobile office at different places in the neighborhood. I really enjoy getting to know the neighborhood better and will keep discovering new and exciting people and places this summer!

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